On the 28th of March, 1984, Murray Sutherland, with a modest record of forty-one wins, eleven losses and one draw, defeated Ernie Singletary for the vacant International Boxing Federation title, becoming the first internationally accepted world champion in the one hundred and sixty-eight pounds, super middleweight division.
A little over thirty years have passed since Scotland’s Sutherland was crowned champion, and in that time dozens of talented pugilists have graced the division. Initially boxing’s elite seemed to merely use it as a pit-stop, on the way to light heavyweight, or as simply an opportunity to capture a title in a different weight class. Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and James Toney didn’t stay long, but by the end of the 1990’s the reigns of Jones, Benn and Eubank had helped it evolve into a respected weight class in its own right.
Assessing and comparing the greatness of fighters from different eras is obviously a highly subjective and contentious topic. When assessing the boxers in this article the following points were taken into consideration:
(o) The number of victories over fighters who were former, reigning, or future holders of the WBC, WBA, IBF or WBO titles at super middleweight. The WBA’s absurd “Regular” champions have not been included.
(o) The number of victories over fighters who have been ranked inside the top ten in The Ring Magazine’s Annual Ratings for the super middleweight division. The Ring Ratings are not perfect, but in the often murky world of professional boxing they at least provide a reasonably accurate picture of the best fighters in each division.
(o) Their dominance at one hundred and sixty eights pounds. Were they the best of their era? How emphatically did they beat their opposition? Were their opponents at the tail end of their careers, or were they full of confidence and on a long unbeaten streak?
(o) Their losses. Were they at their peak when they lost? How one-sided was the loss?
(o) The longevity of their reign and the number of title defences made.
The top five have been listed, followed by the best of the rest, in no particular order.
(5) MIKKEL KESSLER
Height – 6 feet 1 inch
Reach – 74 inches
Showtime’s Super Six tournament may have added some glamour to the super middleweight division and raised the profile of its fighters, but years before the start of the competition Mikkel Kessler had already built an outstanding resume, albeit against less famous opposition. However, it seems his early professional career and first reign as champion are often overlooked, blurred in the memory. “The Viking Warrior” sliced his way through his first thirty nine opponents, and his final five foes before squaring off against Joe Calzaghe were all ranked inside the top ten. He dethroned Manny Siaca of his WBA title before demolishing Markus Beyer with a crunching right hand to claim the WBC strap. A twelve round master class over the previously undefeated Librado Andrade showed the Dane had good balance, movement, and stamina, to go with his formidable knockout power. In 2007 Kessler bravely ventured to Wales in an attempt to unify the belts by challenging the experienced Joe Calzaghe. Although extremely competitive for the first half of the fight, the Dane ultimately came up short, losing by 116/112 on two of the scorecards. In the seven years prior to this loss Kessler had fought twenty times, but in the seven years since that night, troubled with injuries, Kessler has fought just nine times. Despite suffering a damaging loss to Andre Ward in 2009, the man from Copenhagen, Denmark, did clinch one final night of greatness when becoming the first to defeat Carl Froch, taking the Englishman’s WBC title via a close points decision in April 2010.
Top 10 ranked opponents – wins: 8 (Thobela, Siaca, Mundine, Lucas, Beyer, Andrade, Froch, Green)
Victories over world title holders: 5 (Thobela, Siaca, Lucas, Beyer, Froch)
Losses at 168: 3 (Calzaghe, Ward, Froch)
(4) CHRIS EUBANK
Height – 5 feet 10 inches
Reach – 73 inches
Chris Eubank stopped Michael Watson in September 1991 for the vacant WBO title, an encounter his opponent never fully recovered from. After this near-fatal bout, Eubank seemed to lose his “finishing instinct”, and in later years admitted that he became content just winning his fights on points. Nevertheless, between 1991 and 1995 “Simply the best” defended his belt fourteen times, including a victory over the former IBF title holder, the undefeated Graciano Rocchigiani. His WBO/WBC unification grudge match with Nigel Benn ended in a draw after twelve exciting rounds. Steve Collins managed to edge him on points in 1995, putting an end to his time as champion. A chance to test his unconventional ring style against the leading super middleweight of his era, Roy Jones Junior, never came to fruition.
Top 10 ranked opponents – wins: 7 (Malinga, Thornton, Gimenez, Holmes, Close, Rocchigiani, Wharton)
Victories over world title holders: 3 (Malinga, Rocchigiani, Holmes)
Losses at 168: 3 (Collins X2, Calzaghe)
(3) ANDRE WARD
Height – 6 feet 0 inches
Reach – 71 inches
The 2004 Olympic gold medallist solidified his status as the man to beat by capturing the WBA and WBC titles from Kessler and Froch respectively, handing each of them the second losses of their careers. Ward may not be sensational in any one individual area, but his all-round, well crafted technique and icy cool temperament have prevented any opponent from taking his “0” so far in his career. Green, Bika, Abraham and Rodriguez were each widely outpointed over twelve rounds. A unification fight with fellow unbeaten title holder, IBF champion Lucian Bute, would have further enhanced Ward’s resume, but this opportunity slipped by and in the last two years “SOG” has had just two fights.
Top 10 ranked opponents – wins: 6 (Kessler, Green, Bika, Abraham, Froch, Rodriguez)
Victories over world title holders: 4 (Kessler, Bika, Abraham, Froch)
Other notable victories: Dawson – Weight-drained or not, “Bad Chad” was the reigning Ring Magazine light heavyweight champion when Ward stopped him in the tenth round in 2012.
Losses at 168: 0
(2) ROY JONES JUNIOR
Height – 5 Feet 11 inches
Reach – 74 inches
On November 18th, 1994, Roy Jones Junior put on arguably his finest performance, comfortably outpointing the pound for pound number two boxer in the world, James Toney, for the IBF title. In a brief but highly destructive reign between 1994 and 1996 Jones defended his title against six top ten rated opponents, stopping all of them. The American didn’t stay long enough to completely dominate the division, so fights with Benn, Eubank and Collins never materialised. His lightning quick hand-speed and reflexes, combined with explosive, concussive, one-punch power, helped make him one of the most gifted fighters of the 1990’s.
Top 10 ranked opponents – wins: 7 (Toney, Byrd, Pazienza, Thornton, Sosa, Lucas, Brannon)
Victories over world title holders: 2 (Toney, Lucas)
Losses at 168: 0
(1) JOE CALZAGHE
Height – 5 Feet 11 inches
Reach – 73 inch
Joe Calzaghe, “The Pride of Wales”, defeated Eubank for the WBO title in 1997. Many thought Byron Mitchell was unfortunate to lose his WBA title via a split decision to Sven Ottke in 2003 in Germany, but he had no complaints when stopped by the Welshman just three months later. It is a shame that a clash with the IBF title holder, Ottke, could never be negotiated, but once the German retired in 2004, the new champion, Jeff Lacy, had no qualms about facing Calzaghe in England in March, 2006. Joe made him regret it though, utterly thrashing the highly touted American, taking his IBF belt and making Calzaghe the division’s first ever Ring Magazine Champion, leading to a unification bout with the WBA/WBC title holder Mikkel Kessler in November, 2007. Kessler was undefeated and at the peak of his powers when Calzaghe inflicted his first loss in front of 50,000 spectators in Cardiff, Wales. It is true that the Welsh southpaw’s phenomenal work-rate, solid chin and quick hands were three of his most notable attributes, but it was his canny ability to adapt his fighting style that separated him from his fiercest competitors. Whether he was choosing to slug it out with Charles Brewer, roaring back from a knock-down to batter Mitchell, or changing tactics mid-fight against Kessler, one always sensed Calzaghe had an ace up his sleeve, regardless of what his opponent threw at him.
Top 10 ranked opponents – wins: 10 (Eubank, Gimenez, Reid, Woodhall, Brewer, Mitchell, Lacy, Bika, Manfredo, Kessler)
Victories over world title holders: 8 (Eubank, Woodhall, Reid, Brewer, Mitchell, Bika, Lacy, Kessler)
Other notable victories: Sheika – Omar was fresh off a victory over a thirty one year old Glen Johnson. Calzaghe halted him in the 5th round.
Losses at 168: 0
NIGEL BENN – Top 10 ranked opponents – wins: 5 (Malinga, Galvano, Wharton, Gimenez, Nardiello). Wins over world title holders: 3 (Malinga, Galvano, Nardiello). Drew with Eubank and stopped Gerald McClellan in a terrific but tragic fight in 1995.
JAMES TONEY – Top 10 ranked opponents – wins: 3 (Barkley, Thornton, Littles). Wins over world title holders: 1 (Barkley)
CHONG-PAL PARK – Wins over world title holders: 2 (Sutherland, Holmes). In the 1980’s the division was still in its infancy so Park’s opposition was generally not of the highest calibre. Park made eight defences of his IBF belt and one of his WBA title. The Ring Annual Ratings for the 168 pounds division were introduced in 1989, after Park had retired.
STEVE COLLINS – Top 10 ranked opponents – wins: 2 (Eubank, Benn). Wins over world title holders: 2 (Eubank, Benn)
SVEN OTTKE – Top 10 ranked opponents – wins: 8 (Brewer, Tate, Johnson, Butler, Mundine, Mitchell, Larsen, Reid). Wins over world title holders: 3 (Brewer, Mitchell, Reid). Several highly controversial victories in his home country of Germany.
CARL FROCH – Top 10 ranked opponents – wins: 9 (Reid, Pascal, Taylor, Dirrell, Abraham, Johnson, Bute, Kessler, Groves). Victories over world title holders: 4 (Reid, Abraham, Bute, Kessler)
Carl Froch, although not yet showing any significant signs of decline is considering just one last fight before retirement, and it seems likely that this farewell bout is to be against former middleweight titlist Julio Caesar Chavez Junior. “The Cobra” currently has victories over four former/current/future super middleweight title holders, which is one less than the Dane, Kessler. Froch’s victories over nine different top ten ranked opponents are impressive though, second only to Calzaghe, who has defeated ten. In this writer’s opinion, Froch is only narrowly behind Eubank and Kessler in terms of overall greatness at super middleweight. A noticeably faded version of Kessler managed a close victory over an undefeated Froch in 2010 though, tipping the balance, and nudging the Nottingham man out of the top five. A Froch v Chavez match-up is guaranteed to be an exciting money-spinner, but it is not a fight that will elevate his already lofty place in super middleweight history.
Since his loss to Calzaghe, Kessler’s career has been littered with injuries and long periods of inactivity. He may still have a couple of fights left in him, but unless he rolls back the years and pulls off a big upset against Andre Ward in a rematch, he’s also unlikely to climb the all-time rankings.
In just five fights, between 2009 and 2011, Andre Ward went from being a relatively unknown contender, to becoming the Ring Champion and a pound for pound top five fighter. The Super Six tournament provided a sure-fire, pre-planned route to fights against the division’s most famous names, and “SOG” seized this opportunity, taking full advantage of it. Two years have passed since the tournament’s finale. Legal troubles and injuries have hampered his career, and without the convenience of a structured pathway, the big fights have dried up. Ward, a light heavyweight in his days as an amateur, may soon move up to the one hundred and seventy five pounds division, closing the book on his super middleweight chapter, but if the American decides to remain at his current weight, he can still build on his already impressive credentials. Once the human wrecking ball, Gennady Golovkin has completely decimated the middleweight division, he may look for new challenges at a higher weight division. If Ward regains his momentum, makes several more defences against high calibre opponents, a career defining “super fight” victory over “GGG” would make him a serious rival to Joe Calzaghe as the greatest ever one hundred and sixty eight pounds fighter. However, ten years as champion, twenty one world title defences with no losses, and victories over eight former/current/future world champions are not easy statistics to surpass. As was the case when he was fighting, the unassuming, often under-appreciated Welshman is going to be tough to beat.
Boxing records and ratings – courtesy of BoxRec.